Memories of Austen and “Pride and Prejudice”
In my junior year of college, I took a Jane Austen seminar with about ten other women and one guy; the chaff (like, two hundred women and…one guy) having been swiftly winnowed out by the necessity of writing an introductory Austen essay to be judged on. And it was a great seminar, and I met my best friend in it because we had both just been dumped and could not write our final papers and got basically eternal extensions on them—I think they still have my diploma—because our professor had also suffered great heartbreak. So, when I think of “Pride and Prejudice,” I think first of female friendship, now, and how it can outlast great (or middling) love.—Ed.
I am in late elementary school, and I am puzzled. This grown-up book I’m reading features a character who, in the parlance of that era of my life, is a total jerk. He’s basically one of the mean kids, and yet the blurb on the back suggests that somehow he plays hero to the wondrous Elizabeth Bennet of the dirty petticoats and sparkling wit.
I just don’t get how we’re going to get from A to B.
“Mom, why does it say ‘Elizabeth and Darcy’s social world?’” I ask, all earnestness. “She’s not going to get together with him, is she?”
This eventually goes down in history as one of the three most loaded literary questions I have ever asked her, the other two being “Mom, is Beth gonna die?” and “Mom, if Rochester loves Jane too, why are there 300 pages left in the book?”
I was stunned to realize I might witness Darcy’s transformation into a stand-up guy. Too young to second-guess, I read his character as Austen showed him to me, through Lizzy’s eyes, and so had no indication he had reserves of good in him. (Then, once both our eyes were opened, like many Austen readers I went on to project reserves of good into several aloof men who had zero to speak of — but that’s another story. Like a true Austen heroine, I lived and learned.)
I grew up consuming all books within arm’s reach, and I’m sure if Austen had been in that reach, I’d be one of those girls who’s read “Pride and Prejudice” 15 times. Instead, my first meeting was with “Mansfield Park,” in AP English no less. It could have been disastrous. But oh how I loved Fanny Price, even with her general humorlessness and the odd — at least to a 16-year-old — side-plot about slavery in the Antigua. But wasn’t Edmund just the best second-tier brother of all time? AND THEN THE MOVIE, don’t even get me started, I’m basically watching Elementary just so I can feel the same way about Jonny Lee Miller as I did when I first watched that film. Which is all to say that I’m now an Austen completist, “Northanger Abbey” is proof that Austen had a wicked sense of humor, “Persuasion” is the most underrated, and Greer Garson (1940) is the most annoying Elizabeth Bennet.
Alas, my memory of Jane Austen’s books is completely blank although I’ve read at least three of her novels.
You would do as well asking Karp Lykov! Sorry.
I remember the thrill of discovering “Persuasion” in my 20s and realizing that, after having read “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense & Sensibility” to pieces (and hating “Mansfield Park” even after a couple reads), there was somehow this other Jane Austen I hadn’t yet read. And carrying it around to different places — in waiting rooms, before meetings — and reading it and falling in love with how melancholy and composed it was. I think all favorite authors should turn out to have a masterpiece that you somehow haven’t yet read: the extra post-“Villette” Charlotte Bronte, the secret George Eliot (overlooked because she published it as Herman Eliot), et cetera.
Like many other girls, I was primed to love “Pride and Prejudice” before I even really knew what it was about. And I DID, of course, and fell in love with the idea of a Mr. Darcy, of course, and appreciated Elizabeth Bennet for her directness and muddy petticoats and, uh, prejudice, BUT! I sometimes get (maybe unreasonably) irritated with tomboyish characters who are still written to be inescapably attractive, always with at LEAST two suitors, and always so humble and divine to the point that you can’t even feel justified in being irritated with them for being so well-liked. You (or I) want the tomboys to be different from the sillier, stereotypically blonder sisters, and I always wanted part of that difference to be that they DON’T also get to have literally everyone be in love with them. That’s probably one-quarter weird, fiction-inspired jealousy, and three-quarters annoyance about how that sort of storyline devalues these female characters’ tomboyishness and brazenness (or supposed other-ness) for me, because they end up the same, and it’s easy. They end up married and pretty and happy and rich. They end up watching (and sometimes encouraging!) their own unwanted lovers pair up with their poor, less-cool best friends. I know there’s a lot of other social commentary going on, but on that basic level, that characteristic of Jane Austen (and so many other!) novels gets under my skin.
I feel strongly that no woman under the age of 35 should be allowed to read or talk about it (and only women who can pass a Reality Test upon achieving the age of majority should be told about Mr. Darcy), but that isn’t really the book’s fault.
I think the most memorable moment of the first time I read it was, for me, when our professor insisted upon a dramatic reading of the section where Darcy comes upon Lizzie when she’s just walked from Longbourne to Netherfield to visit an ailing Jane. Lizzie’s skirts are filthy, her hair’s a mess, and her eyes are “bright with the exercise.” She’s sweaty, mussed — positively post-coital — and it’s the moment Darcy first starts to love her. I remember being first shocked and then delighted that Austen — whom I’d been led to believe was stodgy as all hell — had written something so deliciously (and tastefully, of course) sexy. You just know Lizzie and Darcy tore it up in bed, when they finally got there.
I’ve read “Pride and Prejudice” about a million times and so know the first line (“… a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”) pretty damn well. And every time I have a totally different feeling. It’s like Austen is speaking to me through all growing stages and my anticipation of the book is entirely different depending on how i’m feeling. I suppose that’s pretty mundane, but it’s true. I sort of respond to Jane and think, ah, this is actually how life is. And feel very profound and wise.
[whispers] I’ve never read any Jane Austen.
I’ll hand in my hairpin now.